Chris Robs resume reads like a compilation of the best in popular music. He has performed with powerhouse artists including Stevie Wonder, Prince, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, John Legend, Lauryn Hill, and Jill Scott, to name a few. While his piano playing ability is an industry standard, Chris Rob says he is ready for people to recognize him for more.
With a sound that encompasses a blend of rocker Lenny Kravitz and old soul James Brown, the Chicago native took that influence to the Chicago Musical College at Roosevelt University to earn a degree in Music Business. Yearning for the spotlight, Chris Rob decided to compile old, new, studio-recorded and live music. In 2003, he released The Official Bootleg of Chris Rob, Vol. 1, thinking only of attaining local acclaim. Eventually, international deejays began hitting him up, and now more than 70 countries are still spinning his debut.
His behind-the-scenes work has varied from being a music director for Alyson Williams and Melisa Morgan, a keyboardist for Swizz Beatz, and singer opening for Black Eyed Peas and Kanye West. The buzz hes receiving isnt bad for a kid who used to be scared to take center stage. Sailing on his underground success, 27-year-old Chris Rob is touring the U.S. before embarking on a tour in South Africa. In this exclusive interview, he tells AllHipHop.com Alternatives about the feeling behind his music, the benefits of not being a college drop out and how Chicago inspired him to be more than a typical R&B cat.
AllHipHop.com Alternatives: Most singers from Chicago have a smooth, R&B-type vibe. How did you develop the sound that you have?
Chris Rob: I grew up just listening to everything, you know. Ive always been more of a musician, mostly a keyboardist [because] that was my first instrument I focused on. That added to the so many different types of music. I was playing Jazz, playing Gospel, Funk and Hip-Hop, playing House music here in Chicago. My sister used to play Prince. My father used to play James Brown. The mix of that music kinda moved me vocally. Even though I love legends like Luther Vandross, Jodeci and groups that came out of that vein when I was a kid, I was still kind of drawn back to the stuff of back in the day.
AHHA: Does being a non-traditional-type R&B artist make it harder for you to get out there?
Chris Rob: I wouldnt say that, because people who love music love all kinds of music. People that buy my music appreciate it for what it is. I feel like every artist should be a little different and not just stick to one category. If I was just one person who sounded like a lot of people, I think it would be more difficult to get out and do the kind of music that I want to do in this format. I do music where I can bring live instruments to the stage, I can incorporate Jazz, I can incorporate Gospel. People hear it and they talk about it because its something unique its coming back but its still rare among musicians and singers today.
AHHA: On your CD I noticed a whole different vibe with the live cuts versus the studio-recorded songs. Whats the difference between performing in a studio and on stage?
Chris Rob: Its like night and day. In the studio, youre by yourself and on stage its straight live. It could be three people or 3,000 people, but theyre sharing the moment with you. So it definitely hypes you up. But I dont think its that much different to me, personally. When I listen back to it, especially the songs I chose to do live, Said Youd Never Leave Me, the same spirit is coming out its just more hyped. In the original recording we had minimal rehearsal. If you listen to it, there are different mistakes that the bass player made, and the keyboardist. I didnt even know the band that played that, but I thought it was hot. Thats the beauty of live performance – you never know what youll get.
AHHA: When did you know you were a singer?
Chris Rob: Wow, thats something I kinda learn everyday, over and over again. Growing up, I sang everyday. I was mad shy because the piano was like my first forte. I used to really hide behind the piano, and I kept getting stuck there. I had to grow more and more confident over the years.
AHHA: So did you start getting out there and getting over your shyness?
Chris Rob: I started going to college when I was 16, and I started focusing on being an artist. Im an emcee as well, so I just wanted to incorporate all of that Hip-Hop, singing, playing instruments and a lot of elements. I always wanted to do that, and I really pushed myself to do it. As a soloist, I never started jumping up on stage until I was like 18. I used to get shot down, because I was so shy about my vocals, I would never really go for it like I should have. Over the years, I had to grow and I met people who really pushed me to another level. Especially when I got to New York, it was like a training ground. I got booed and got laughed off the stage. Then there were times when people gave me a lot of love. But I kept on doing it until I got to the point I am now.
AHHA: Im not sure too many artists now have degrees
Chris Rob: Me either. [laughs]
AHHA: How does that help you as an artist?
Chris Rob: It helps me with my game plan a lot more. I have a little more information and more knowledge on how to use that information. So, I guess on the business end I know how to handle more stuff. As an artist, if you dont know how to handle your business, youre going to end up getting screwed, for real. If you cant handle yourself and your business, youre out of luck. Knowing what to do with my money has really allowed me to focus on how to market myself, how to promote myself, how to present myself to any person in any industry. Im respected as an artist and a businessperson.
AHHA: Youve performed with a lot of people, what have you learned from those experiences?
Chris Rob: I have this thing that I think artists and musicians are really powerful. There is a certain type of energy that comes across when you meet them. Thats why people are drawn to rock stars. I try to grab that from certain people. Ive worked with some of the greatest musicians you can work with in the industry. If you get a chance to see how people get down, and not even how they are as musicians but how they are as a person and how they treat other people; that has helped me out a lot. It has helped me to be more at ease when I bring my music to the stage or to the studio. I really relax and let the music flow out of me.
When I worked with Lauryn Hill – that was probably a perfect example. She knew what she wanted, and she knew how to tell you what she wanted. She sat me down at the piano and told me how she wanted me to play this one song, told me all the different elements she wanted me to put in. And at the same time I felt like I just flowed through it when I was sitting in the studio with her, man it was crazy. You learn how to get that flow from a lot of artist.
AHHA: Tell us a little bit about the process of putting together the album.
Chris Rob: When I put together the Official Bootleg, that was just different stuff I was working on in the studio, here and there. Some of it I did in my bedroom in my parents house. Some of it I did when I was living in the Bronx living in Brooklyn. I really didnt know I was about to put out a CD. What made me want to do that is, I got a hold of Dweles first bootleg, and that really inspired me. He had an underground vibe, and it was making noise. I wanted to get my music out like that as well, but you never know how music gets out there. If I had to do that over again, I probably would have done the same thing, but I wonder how much more focused I would have been if I knew how many people around the world would hear the CD. I was kind of thinking that people in New York and Chicago would hear it. I wasnt thinking in the long run, I just wanted to get it out.
AHHA: What is your reaction when people from other countries know all the words to your songs and are big fans of your work?
Chris Rob: Thats a trip. When people say they felt it, I guess Im not shocked that they felt it, because thats what it was. I felt it. I put it out and I liked it. I guess its more knowing that people overseas people in Australia have been checking it out, London, Norway, Amsterdam will come up to me with my CD wanting autographs. Its really cool and Im thankful of that.